MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

As I don’t live in the UK at present, I miss much of what the British papers report about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Therefore, I am a bit late to stumble over an article on the business activities of our Royals. It brought back into memory a little tiff I had with Prince Charles.

The article in the Express includes the following passage:

The UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst, dubbed the Duchy Originals detox tincture — which was being sold on the market at the time — “outright quackery”.

The product, called Duchy Herbals’ Detox Tincture, was advertised as a “natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s elimination processes” and a “food supplement to help eliminate toxins and aid digestion”.

The artichoke and dandelion mix cost £10 for a 50ml bottle.

Yet, Professor Ernst said Charles and his advisers seemed to be ignoring the science in favour of relying on “make-believe” and “superstition”, and said the suggestion that such products could remove bodily toxins was “implausible, unproven and dangerous”.

He noted: “Prince Charles thus financially exploits a gullible public in a time of financial hardship.”

This passage describes things accurately but not completely. What actually happened was this:

Unbeknown to me and with the help of some herbalists, Duchy Originals had developed the ‘detox tincture’ during a time when I was researching the evidence about ‘detox’. Eventually, my research was published as a review of the detox concept:

Background: The concept that alternative therapies can eliminate toxins and toxicants from the body, i.e. ‘alternative detox’ (AD) is popular.

Sources of data: Selected textbooks and articles on the subject of AD.

Areas of agreement: The principles of AD make no sense from a scientific perspective and there is no clinical evidence to support them.

Areas of controversy: The promotion of AD treatments provides income for some entrepreneurs but has the potential to cause harm to patients and consumers.

Growing points: In alternative medicine, simplistic but incorrect concepts such as AD abound. AREAS TIMELY FOR RESEARCH: All therapeutic claims should be scientifically tested before being advertised-and AD cannot be an exception.

When I was asked by a journalist what I thought about Charles’ new ‘detox tincture’, I told her that it was not supported by evidence which clearly makes it quackery. I also joked that Duchy Originals could thus be called ‘Dodgy Originals’. The result was this newspaper article and a subsequent media storm in the proverbial teacup.

At Exeter University, I had just fallen out of favor because of the ‘Smallwood Report’ and the complaint my involvement in it prompted by Charles’ first private secretary (full story in my memoir). After the ‘Dodgy Originals story’ had hit the papers, I was summoned ominously to my dean, Prof John Tooke, who probably had intended to give me a dressing down of major proportions. By the time we were able to meet, a few weeks later, the MHRA had already reprimanded Duchy Originals for misleading advertising which took most of the wind out of Tooke’s sail. The dressing down thus turned into something like “do you have to be so undiplomatic all the time?”.

Several months later, I was invited by the Science Media Centre, London, to give a lecture on the occasion of my retirement (Fiona Fox, the head of the SMC, had felt that, since my own University does not have the politeness to run a valedictory lecture for me, she will organize one for journalists). In that short lecture, I tried to summarize 19 years of research which inevitably meant briefly mentioning Charles and his foray into detox.

When I had finished, there were many questions from the journalists. Jenny Hope from the Daily Mail asked, “You mentioned snake-oil salesmen in your talk, and you also mentioned Prince Charles and his tinctures. Do you think that Prince Charles is a snake-oil salesman?” My answer was brief and to the point: “Yes“. The next day, this was all over the press. The Mail’s article was entitled ‘Charles? He’s just a snake-oil salesman: Professor attacks prince on ‘dodgy’ alternative remedies‘.

The advice of Tooke (who by then had left Exeter) to be more diplomatic had evidently not borne fruits (but the tinctures were discreetly taken off the market).

Diplomatic or honest?

This has been a question that I had to ask myself regularly during my 19 years at Exeter. For about 10 years, I had tried my best to walk the ‘diplomatic route’. When I realised that, in alternative medicine, the truth is much more important than diplomacy, I gradually changed … and despite all the hassle and hardship it brought me, I do not regret the decision.

8 Responses to Remember Prince Charles’ ‘Duchy Originals Detox Tincture’?

  • @ Edzard

    I believe this is what our American cousins call “speaking truth to power.”

    I have always believed that reports that the Duchy farm animals are treated with homeopathic remedies in preference to real scientific medicines amounts to animal cruelty and ought to be investigated by the proper authorities.

    https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/12/prince-charles-use-homeopathy-in-animals-to-cut-antibiotic-use

    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3587406/Prince-Charles-uses-homeopathy-animals-organic-farms-reduce-reliance-antibiotics.html

    As Simon Singh pithily commented ‘Prince Charles should limit himself to talking to his plants.’

  • Detox

    I’ve been thinking about this and other pseudoscientific and pseudomedical phenomena such as ‘manipulating energy fields’ and ‘stimulating self-healing’ (e.g. by means of homeopathy), and I came to the conclusion that all these things can be dismissed as being extremely implausible for one very simple reason: evolution.

    Detox: All organisms are naturally exposed to harmful substances (‘toxins’), and as a result, all organisms have already evolved often highly sophisticated detox mechanisms. In higher animals, those are primarily the kidneys, the liver, and a host of enzymes and other chemicals (e.g. stomach acid, intestinal enzymes) that break down and excrete most harmful substances that may enter the body. If all sorts of ‘toxins’ would actually be a serious problem as claimed by the denizens of the Alternative Universe, then there would be a huge evolutionary advantage in optimizing this system. In other words: and it is therefore VERY unlikely that simply ingesting some very specific plants or herbs could have any significant effect in this respect – because evolution would have implemented this trick long ago already.

    Manipulating energy fields: The same goes for ‘energy fields’ and the manipulation thereof. If these would actually exist, and if problems with these ‘energy fields’ could actually be the cause of ailments, and if these ‘energy fields’ could actually be manipulated to restore health (please note that we already have a chain of three totally unproven premises), then why hasn’t evolution succeeded in producing mechanisms to achieve this? After all, according to the denizens of the Alternative Universe, this kind of ‘healing’ is supposedly extremely simple, and only requires the right kind of handwaving, performed with the right mindset. It is therefore VERY unlikely that in cases of ailments, aforementioned handwaving should have significant beneficial effects over what the body itself is capable of doing.

    Homeopathy etc. (‘stimulating self-healing’): And once again, it is hugely unlikely that something as childishly simple as a shaken infinite dilution of arbitrary substances in water should have any significant health effects that the body itself hasn’t already achieved through evolution.

    Summarized: why would organisms have evolved all those complicated enzymes, peptides, organs and immune systems if there are far simpler ‘short cuts’ to achieve good health and healing? Why hasn’t evolution taken advantage of those alternative short cuts, even after well over half a billion years?

    Note that the existence of pharmaceutical products does not contradict but support the above: real medicines and vaccines make use of those existing mechanisms, instead of claiming to use completely different mechanisms and pathways to keep the organism alive. And also note that the vast majority of pharmaceutical products do not actually cure condition – in a very real sense, those products are really supporting self-healing and disease prevention.

    • @ Richard Rasker

      an extremely good argument. As you say these “systems” claim to use the body’s “own natural healing powers” etc so your argument would make perfect sense.

      That’s apart entirely from the high level implausibility and complete lack of evidence for the existence of such things as “biofields” and “qi” and “meridians” in the first place or that any of these imaginary objects can in fact be”manipulated” at all.

      Not only that but one has to ask how it is possible to detect and be aware of such elusive substances as “qi” and all the others in the fist place.

      How did mankind not die out long ago before the discovery of “detox” and “homeopathy” if these are so essential to our existence? How did badly “unbalanced” humans manage before the invention of “Reiki?”

      It is all a severe case of the Emperor’s New Clothes – only these SCAMmers can see biofields, qi, subluxations and meridians and the like — for they are in the eye of the beholder or rather in their deluded minds.
      But you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into – and reason and rational thought are totally alien to these people. They probably don’t “believe” in evolution either.

      btw I saw your takedown of that Biofield paper on PubPeer – it was masterful.

      • one has to ask how it is possible to detect and be aware of such elusive substances as “qi” and all the others in the fist place

        This is a rather nifty case of circular reasoning on behalf of the denizens of the Alternative Universe, and it goes like this:

        1. Let us assume the existence of qi.
        2. Based on this assumption, all sorts of treatments to take advantage of qi were (and are being) developed.
        3. And lo and behold! Most people get better after those treatments!
        4. And this again provides unequivocal support for step #1. After all, if qi didn’t exist, #2 and #3 would quickly be proven wrong, now wouldn’t they?

        So there you have it: the existence of qi is proven beyond doubt, without the need to detect it in any objective, separate way!

        [homework for those suffering from Covid-19 boredom: spot the fallacies in this wonderful piece of reasoning]

        btw I saw your takedown of that Biofield paper on PubPeer – it was masterful.

        Thank you, but any moderately bright high school student could have done the same.

        I think that by far the most important bit is to keep hammering on the fact that qi, human biofields, subtle energy etcetera have never been proven to exist (other than in the fallacious way sketched above) – yet that alternative practitioners and their adherents routinely assume that these phenomena are quite real.

  • I go further and suggest that camists and quacks are part of a conspiracy not only to take advantage of gullible and vulnerable sufferers (patients), but to undermine rational thought and critical thinking amongst the rest of us in order to secure nefarious ends.

    I can’t think of why else they would persist with ridiculous claims.

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